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Where the 'Nocturnal Animals' Roam

Amy Adams confronts the mistakes of an unhappy life in Tom Ford’s film

Dec. 6, 2016
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“What right do I have to be unhappy?” Susan demands. After all, many people would envy her life. Susan (Amy Adams) has a handsome husband, a walled mansion worthy of Architectural Digest and a trendy Los Angeles art gallery whose openings are crowded with wine-drinking members of the chattering class. But her gallery, an expensive money-losing tableau, is filled with grotesque contemporary art that she hates. “Junk,” she confides. “Total junk.” Her mansion is all cold stony surfaces, as is her husband with the Ivy League name, Hutton. He keeps late hours at the office each night and doesn’t bother coming to her openings or even to her bed. Communication has lapsed into awkward silences.

Susan is the reluctant protagonist in her own life and in someone else’s fiction in writer-director Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals. As her husband announces his departure on yet another suspicious business trip, a package arrives. It contains a galley of the soon-to-be published novel by her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), and a letter from him explaining that she was the novel’s inspiration. He adds that he will be in L.A. soon. How about getting together?

Brilliantly edited and with passages of beautiful cinematography, Nocturnal Animals moves easily between the novel as visualized in Susan’s readings, the morose reality of her present situation and aching memories of Edward. His disturbing novel starts pleasantly enough as the characters representing Edward, Susan and their daughter embark on a car trip across west Texas. But that night, on a lonely strip of two-lane highway, in a deserted stretch where cellphone signals can’t reach, they encounter a violent gang of redneck reprobates. Tension rises steadily. “You think you’re so much better than me?” spouts the ringleader, Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), injecting a sharp note of class hatred into his sociopathology.

Susan’s art crowd also comes off badly in Nocturnal Animals. They are as grotesque as the junk art in her gallery, especially the artist who purchased an app that links to a camera in her child’s nursery—a way to “be more involved” with her offspring, she explains. One of Susan’s wiser confederates counsels that, since all of their pursuits are meaningless, there is nothing to do but enjoy the absurdity. “Our world is much less painful than the real world,” he adds.

The performances by Adams and Gyllenhaal have a cast-in-bronze feel as if to indicate that their characters are just slightly larger than everyday life. The orchestral music at the onset sets a tone of melancholy melodrama reminiscent of the movies of Douglas Sirk. Not unlike such 1950s Sirk melodramas as Magnificent Obsession and All that Heaven Allows, Nocturnal Animals is conspicuously stylized with ironies and social critiques lurking behind the polished surfaces.

Nocturnal Animals
Amy Adams
Jake Gyllenhaal
Directed by Tom Ford
Rated R


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